“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis. Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies. We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy. Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag. The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us. In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions. Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between. Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales. As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.
Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience. Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film. My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm. From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected. His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience. However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material. His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés. His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.
Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap. The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed. There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities. Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist. Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue. The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars. Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline. What a copout! In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production. I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen. Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?
In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe. Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid. There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night. Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs. That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites. That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” – Aibileen
Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success. When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off. Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility. In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer. She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks. As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not. That would have been more realistic.
“I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange
I discovered Nothing But a Man in college. It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship. Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff. I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable. However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself. In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance. She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self. Now that’s a shero! It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore. People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless. I don’t need television and movies to affirm me. There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.
Don’t miss upcoming Cinema Nero™ posts! To subscribe, click on “Email Subscription” in the upper, right corner.
“You know who should have won. My friends can’t be straight with me! It was rigged. That’s like family. They can’t give it to… a stranger!”
Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever
During a pivotal scene in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (John Travolta) realized that his dance contest victory was more about popularity than performance. Tony was a great dancer, but he knew he had been out danced on that particular night. His friends, however, were not that objective. They voted based on how they felt about Tony. His preferential treatment – though fictional – exemplifies how the Oscars sometimes determines its “best.” It is not always about the quality of the work. At times, in addition to popularity, the determining factors include sentiment and compensation.
As an avid observer of the Oscars for many years, I have experienced countless moments of disbelief. The first one occurred during the 1974 Best Actor contest when Art Carney won for his role in Harry and Tonto against a field that included Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II). No doubt Carney, a comedic actor and older than his fellow nominees, was the sentimental favorite. The unlikely win by Carney provided a more compelling narrative: “Honeymooners” star conquers drama with Best Actor win! I’m sure the voters also felt that Pacino and Nicholson, unlike Carney, would have more opportunities to be nominated and eventually win. Nicholson would go on to win the following year, and Pacino would finally win in the early 90’s (more on that later).
Another compelling narrative that has been irresistible to Academy voters is: Actor triumphs in directing debut! Such was the case with Robert Redford in 1981 and Kevin Costner in 1990. Ironically, both wins came at the expense of Martin Scorsese’s superior work in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively. Even though Ordinary People is a fine movie that survives the test of time, there is no way it should have topped Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull in the Directing and Best Picture categories. The same is especially true for the woefully overrated Dances With Wolves in regards to Goodfellas.
Then there is what I like to call the “make-up” Oscar which is used to compensate an actor for his or her body of work. As much as I love Pacino, his 1992 Best Actor Oscar was more about recognizing the sum total of his remarkable career, which includes The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, than his over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman. Many – and I include myself in that number – felt that Pacino’s Oscar came at the expense of Denzel Washington’s extraordinary turn in Malcolm X. Perhaps Washington’s loss was meant as a slap to Spike Lee, an outspoken Hollywood outsider, or due to the controversial title character.
Nine years later, however, Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for his 2001 performance in Training Day. Yes, it was fun seeing Washington play the bad guy, but based on what I’ve seen of him during interviews and by his own admission, Washington’s performance, ad-libs and all, was not much of a departure from his actual personality. Nevertheless, the Academy did not miss the opportunity to compensate Washington for Malcolm X while at the same time punishing that year’s frontrunner, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, for behaving “badly” at a movie awards show in Great Britain. Crowe’s Oscar snub was made even more obvious when the film he starred in took home the major awards.
TO BE CONCLUDED…
Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion
I began this blog more than a month ago as the 2010 movie awards season culminated with the Academy Awards (informally known as the Oscars). The working title was If I Produced the Oscars, and my intent was to critique the overall quality of the awards ceremony with suggestions to make it more efficient and entertaining. However, after watching the program and frustrated attempts to blog on the aforementioned topic, it dawned on me that the Oscars and the film industry are two sides of the same coin. Consequently, a critique of one is applicable to the other, which raises the following question: What do the Oscars reveal about the Hollywood film industry and vice versa? This will be examined over the next few weeks in a three-part series: Part One: Revenge of the Nerds; Part Two: All in the Family; and Part Three: The Illusion of Inclusion.
“Congratulations, nerds.” — James Franco
As co-host of the Oscars this year, Franco’s attempt at humor revealed much about the film industry’s priorities. When founded in 1928, the Oscar’s stated purpose was to acknowledge the excellence of professionals in the film industry. However, the Oscars, with all its related pomp and pageantry, became more of a popularity contest and fashion show for movie stars than a way to recognize worthy accomplishments. Eighty-three years later, little has changed. Those who work in front of the camera are the focus of adoration, as evidenced by the most frequently asked question of the evening: “Who are you wearing?” Meanwhile, the “nerds,” who are responsible for the film industry’s scientific and technical innovations, are barely acknowledged. Their participation is reduced to a brief video recap of a previously held awards ceremony. Like those relegated to the kiddie table, the scientific and technical honorees are to be seen (barely) and not heard.
This apparent disregard for the visionaries who operate behind the scenes also reflects the film industry’s overall resistance to change and taking risks. For example, when The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, was released in 1927, it was excluded from the Oscar’s Best Picture contest. The given reason was that it shouldn’t compete with silent films. The film’s technological breakthrough was of no consideration. However, it was not until The Jazz Singer created such a sensation (translation: made lots of money) that the industry took notice and transitioned to talking pictures. A great deal of the film industry’s progress and modifications – impacted in the past by television and more recently by digital technology and streaming media – continue to be made under duress.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
Though I have attended numerous programs honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including panel discussions, political forums, dramatic presentations and church services, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis remains my favorite way to remember him. I used to look forward to watching this documentary on the local PBS station every year. Due to issues with the King estate, however, the broadcast rights became unavailable and the film disappeared. Fortunately, the uncut, 185-minute version is screened occasionally – especially around the King Holiday and now throughout Black History Month.
King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis chronicles Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to his assassination in 1968. Watching the nonviolent protests that I had previously only heard and read about, I couldn’t and still cannot even begin to imagine the courage, commitment and self-control of those – many whose names we will never know – who willingly faced racial hostility in the forms of verbal and physical assaults, incarceration and sometimes death. Recalling those warriors for justice and their sacrifices keeps in perspective how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
The documentary also offers glimpses of Dr. King not usually seen by the general public. Insightful moments include Dr. King playfully saying, “Give me some sugar,” as he hugged a young admirer, and his humorous account of Rev. Abernathy praying with his eyes open during a riotous confrontation in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is particularly poignant to see Dr. King celebrate what would be his final birthday.
Whether it’s your first time or if it has been a long while, I strongly recommend that you see King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis. If the film is not being shown in your area, the good news is that it is now available for purchase at http://afilmedrecord.com. However you choose to view the film, it is well worth the extra effort.
The first time I saw a preview of Tropic Thunder featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, images of Al Jolson, dancing minstrels and C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man invaded my mind. I immediately filed the movie away into my “not wasting time and money on this” category. However, after favorable word-of-mouth from friends and my growing curiosity, I went to see Tropic Thunder and was pleasantly surprised. It was not the updated minstrel show that I feared. Instead it was a humorous and insightful portrayal of masculinity and the appropriation of race and power in American culture. In other words, who’s the man?
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) – Julius Caesar, 47 BC
“I came. I saw. I hit him right dead in the jaw.” – Ludacris, 2004 AD
Though the contexts of their quotes differ – Julius Caesar boasted of a military victory while Ludacris battled in the men’s bathroom (as depicted in his music video for Get Back) – the underlying message is the same: The victorious warrior epitomizes the masculine ideal. It was this sense of triumph that Ludacris borrowed when he paraphrased Julius Caesar. Like Ludacris, three of the characters in Tropic Thunder – Alpa Chino, Kirk Lazarus and Les Grossman – appropriate aspects of race and power to enhance their respective ideas of manhood.
“I love the p***y. Hell yeah!” – Alpa Chino
Alpa Chino, the rapper, seems to care only about sex and self-promotion. Like his real life counterparts, Al Kapone, Irv Gotti, and the Academy Award-winning Three 6 Mafia of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” fame, Alpa emulates gangsters. His name – an homage to Al Pacino – was no doubt selected to add a layer of toughness to his persona by evoking Scarface and The Godfather. I would be remiss if I did not pause here to note the difference between “gangster” and “gangsta.” A gangster is a member of a crime syndicate, while gangsta is more of an attitude. According to the urban dictionary, gangsta is “one who willfully promotes and participates in destructive and self-serving culture in an effort to project a particular image of toughness or to make oneself intimidating.” Alpa is not at all like the gangsta image he feels necessary to project in order to succeed as a rapper. He is neither self-serving, dangerous nor a misogynist. Proceeds from Alpa’s energy drink, “Booty Sweat,” benefit the community and he hides his homosexuality.
“I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” – Kirk Lazarus
Kirk Lazarus, striving for greater recognition as an actor, puts on blackness for the novelty of it and to advance his career. He mistakenly assumes that darkening his skin and effecting what he believes to be black mannerisms complete the transformation. However, Kirk’s perception of black culture goes no deeper than the theme song from The Jeffersons. How long could Kirk endure what black men face on a daily basis – passing taxis, DWBs, the assumption of criminality, and having to tone down expressions of assertiveness so as not to seem threatening? Well, if Justin Timberlake is any indication, not long at all. Justin, who greatly benefits from appropriating black culture in his music and manner, was quick to disassociate himself after the wardrobe faux pas at the Super Bowl in 2004. He left Janet Jackson hanging, both literally and figuratively, while he scrambled to reclaim his privilege of whiteness in time to perform at the Grammy Awards. For Justin and Kirk, blackness is a role to slip in and out of based on convenience.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” – Les Grossman
Hegemony meets gangsta in the character of Les Grossman who takes the braggadocio of hip hop and backs it up with power, money and white male privilege. One could easily imagine Les as someone who was bullied and teased once upon a time. Perhaps that is why, even with all his clout, Les mimics the intimidating posture of rappers to strengthen his sense of authority. He equates masculinity with physical toughness and is driven to do whatever it takes to avoid any and all appearances of vulnerability. Les has much in common with some heads of state and corporate leaders who disregard the lives and needs of others in their quest for dominance. While Les appears to be in control outwardly, deep down he is insecure. Unfortunately, Les’s bravado and sense of entitlement do not encourage introspection, so the charade continues.
Alpa and Kirk are challenged about their manufactured personas, while Les is not. Alpa knows very little about the man whose name and image he appropriates. When Alpa’s authenticity is tested by a man wearing a dress, ironically, he is unaware of Pacino’s other roles in Sea of Love and Devil’s Advocate. Alpa is all talk when it comes to being a tough guy and vehemently denies being gay. Meanwhile, Kirk is confronted about his lack of self awareness and accused of stereotyping. He is so immersed in the process of creating characters that he has lost himself. Or maybe Kirk loses himself in different identities because he is unsure of his own. On the other hand, Les is treated with reverence because of his status. Surely, there are those who feel Les is ridiculous and full of himself, but being mindful of retribution, they keep those thoughts to themselves. Disagreeing with Les could result in the loss of one’s livelihood which is why people around him behave obsequiously.
Alpa and Kirk benefit from their respective critiques by daring to be their true selves – Alpa comes out of the closet and Kirk returns to his Australian roots. Les not only remains unenlightened, he is celebrated. Les appeared at the MTV Movie Awards this year dancing with Jennifer Lopez, and talks are underway for a Tropic Thunder spin-off. His popularity reveals much about the “survival of the fittest” values embraced by many in this culture as illustrated by predatory lenders, home foreclosures and tax cuts for the wealthy. Les’s uncompromising, domineering demeanor also provides insight on how America is perceived by the rest of the world. After all, what is more gangsta than invading other countries, interfering with governance and taking over resources?
“Get back muhf***er! You don’t know me like that!” – Ludacris
From Julius Caesar to Ludacris to Les Grossman, the most enduring image of manhood is the victorious warrior – whether the battle occurs in war, the men’s room or the boardroom. By popular culture’s standards, the Les Grossman character is the man. However, Alpa and Kirk demonstrate more integrity by dropping their respective acts and accepting themselves. Fortunately, we are free to define the masculine ideal for ourselves. By my standards, “the man” respects the rights and points of view of others, offers and accepts constructive criticism, and is confident enough to show vulnerability and uncertainty. Most importantly, he is honest with others and himself whether it benefits him or not. Take a moment and consider what qualities epitomize manhood at its best. So again I ask, who’s the man?
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”
So begins one of the greatest films ever made, and my personal favorite, The Godfather. There are so many things to love about this movie. Puzo’s writing. Coppola’s interpretation. The sage counsel: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” I could go on and on. Nevertheless, if I had to choose the one thing that makes The Godfather a timeless classic, it would be how it dramatizes the double standards that exist within such cherished American institutions as the criminal justice system, politics, news and entertainment media, and organized religion.
American Ideal: The criminal justice system entitles all citizens to equal protection under the law regardless of race, creed or color.
“I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison – suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” –Amerigo Bonasera
Protection under the law is neither equal nor color-blind. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice, the rate of imprisonment for black males is 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males. Contributing factors include the ability to pay for high quality legal services and discrimination in prosecution, the rendering of verdicts and sentencing based on race and class. Unfortunately, the ironically named Amerigo Bonasera learned this lesson the hard way. Despite assimilating and defining himself as a “good American,” in the eyes of the court, Amerigo’s rights and personhood as an Italian immigrant and those of his daughter were deemed less valuable than those of the two white teens who brutalized her.
American Ideal: The police serve and protect law-abiding citizens and enforce the law.
“What’s the Turk paying you to set up my father, Captain?” – Michael Corleone
Indeed, there are corrupt police officers who abuse the law by participating in illegal activities for financial gain. There are also police officers who sometimes perceive criminality where there is none based on their limited perceptions and prejudices. As a result, law-abiding citizens have been assaulted and even killed. Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight to this injustice. Recently a Texas jury ruled in favor of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man on New Year’s Eve, in front of his parents, after mistakenly assuming the man was driving a stolen car. Although Michael was a war hero and still a law-abiding citizen at this point in the story, the above inquiry was answered with a jaw-breaking punch and he was almost arrested. In this instance, “serve and protect” was reserved for mafia-connected drug dealers.
American Ideal: As elected representatives, politicians serve in the best interest of those they represent.
Michael: “My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.”
Kay: “You know how naive you sound?”
Kay: “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”
Michael: “Oh, who’s being naïve, Kay?”
Some politicians put the interests of sponsors, lobbyists and corporations ahead of the needs of their constituents. These politicians set their priorities based on the financial benefits, be it from industries, such as oil and health care, or deep-pocketed individuals. Vito had quite a few politicians and judges on his payroll, which was evident by the gifts sent to his daughter on her wedding day and his assignment for the “Jew congressman in another district.”
American Ideal: The news is presented truthfully and objectively.
“That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.” – Michael Corleone
The integrity of the news is often compromised by subjective reporting, propaganda and personal agendas. Public opinion is frequently manipulated by the suppression of information and contrasting viewpoints. The Corleone Family, through their contacts, reframed the news coverage of the police captain’s murder to shift the public’s attention from the policeman’s murder to police corruption.
American Ideal: Hollywood movies are harmless entertainment with fair and realistic portrayals of diverse characters.
Jack Woltz: “Johnny Fontane will never get that movie! I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!”
Tom Hagen: “I’m German-Irish.”
Jack Woltz: “Well, let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend…”
Movies made within the Hollywood film industry sometimes reflect narrow worldviews. This often results in racial stereotypes and perpetuates a cycle of intolerance that is very harmful. The Jack Woltz character offers insights regarding this – from the racial slurs in his interaction with Tom to his life at home where his black servants are in the background, barely noticeable and insignificant. One could reasonably conclude that black characters and possibly other minorities in Woltz’s movies would be one-dimensional and insignificant to the plot. Ironically, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Brando stirred up more controversy in 1996 when he described Hollywood as being “run by Jews.” He went on to accuse those in charge of disparaging other racial groups. After much criticism and backlash, Brando apologized for his comments.
American Ideal: Those who observe and practice religious rituals lead godly lives.
“But I’m gonna wait – after the baptism. I’ve decided to be godfather to Connie’s baby. And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia – all of the heads of the Five Families.” – Michael Corleone
Participating in religious rituals and attending church does not automatically indicate godliness and/or morality. Members of the clergy have been accused of stealing money, committing adultery, substance abuse, sexual molestation and domestic violence. For Michael, agreeing to be godfather for his nephew was not done out of love for his sister, it was a business transaction. Michael used his nephew’s baptism as a cover while the heads of the five families were murdered per his orders. This scene delivers one of the most effective montages in cinema history and establishes Michael’s cold-bloodedness, his point of no return. [A more in-depth analysis of Michael Corleone and his transformation from college-educated war hero to ruthless mafia don will follow at a later date.]
In spite of its imperfections, I still believe in America. I believe in the American ideals of freedom, truth and justice. While it’s true that The Godfather sheds light on some of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, accepting reality is a step in the right direction towards eventually achieving those ideals. Like Michael said to Vito, “We’ll get there…” One day and one person at a time, that is.